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Monthly Vignette: Unto the Least of my Brethren

By Angelo Barthélmy



Oh, vignette time again.



Every month, SLP runs a vignette competition with a specific prompt. This competition has been running for more than 5 years, and has generated many, many wonderful creations. This example is from a very early contest, to be precise, the second, on the prompt of “Evolution.”


The current competition, the 69th, is on the subject of Cold and can be found Here.


*****


“Come on, people,” Laura called. “Strip off anything you’ve got on you that is even mildly ironic.”


“Does that mean I can’t wear my: ’Stop or I’ll cuff you,’ shirt, chief?” her forensic pathologist Dahlia Müller answered with her customary cheek.


A stern look got her back in line. She turned a jaundiced eye on any belt buckle, earring, or ankle bracelet that had escaped her people’s rather lackadaisical checks. They still didn’t take this seriously enough. They hadn’t been in the briefing room with the harassed-looking medic.


“The scene is presumed highly contaminated. Even with our biohazard suits on, we can’t be sure we are entirely safe. Don’t play hero. If you feel light-headed, or if anything seems off to you, pipe up on the general frequency and get two of your fellows to bring you through the sterile chamber our friends of MetAl Co are nearly done setting up.


She gave herself a light mental pat on the back for managing to get the name of the company out without making it sound as if it had left a bad taste in her mouth or let know through her tone that she thought they were incredibly tardy in their work. Well. Maybe she had let on a bit at that.


“We’ll do blood counts one hour after we’re out, and every day for a week. Just to be sure, there’ll be some meals of clam and pork liver when we’ve done the first one. We’ve had them prepare lamb kidneys for you, Arié and Marjana.”


That got a few grunts and some worried looks. Good. They needed to be wary.


“The good news is we’re getting hazard pay on this. And just so you know, your significant others have been notified already, so don’t even think of pretending you’re skint when it comes to the celebratory stuff. Yes, I’m talking about you two.”


Jerry and Melissa, the two cheapskates in the unit, had the decency to look suitably abashed, although she could picture the wheels and cogs already turning hard in their minds to spend the absolute minimum.


Speaking of wheels and cogs...


It took a quarter of an hour for them to be suited up and all items on the checklist to be crossed off. Laura gave the go ahead and an employee of MetAl Co badged them through the threshold. They trudged into the assembly line room.


Her ma had taken her to her factory once, to show her where she and the rest of the family had worked before her and so this place got on Laura’s nerves. The place felt wrong. It’d probably smell wrong if the suit hadn’t been in the way. It was too tidy, with everything in its place and a place for everything. Ma’s co-workers had pointed out to her the place where a constant shuffle of feet had worn out the concrete so much that some spilled oil would always pool there. Ma’d make her step over huge spools of discarded wiring – well, they had looked huge to her six-and-a-half-year-old eyes and, most importantly, felt that way to her short legs. Old Man Jack had shown her the artful mess that his tools made, the one only he could navigate so that nobody would try and steal them like they had done on his first week.


There was nothing of this cultivated disorder in that room. And it wasn’t as if it was new and shiny either: those powerful engines had been humming for half a decade and had only been shut off for this. And not a single surface had the air of having ever shone, as if the specs for it had explicitly mentioned they must be dull when delivered.


What would have ma thought of this place, if she had lived to see it?


Dahlia moved past her distracted self and reached the scene. It was obvious she wanted to do a proper kneel, but the joints were much too stiff to allow bending. At least there was enough flexibility in the elbows to allow some swabbing, and the suits were covered in recording equipment to dispense with the need for them to take pictures. She started circling, the very picture of a finless shark out of water. It might have been for the benefit of the sensors, but she often said that it helped her think. Laura had too many of her own quirks to reprove someone for being weird.


The victim did disrupt all that tidiness, though. Its body had been ripped apart as if from the inside, its innards and gizzards spilt every which way in a radius of one and a half metre or so. It had been here for a while and Laura’s gloved fingers disturbed some of the red-brown powder which covered everything.


Her deputy Sy sidled up to her with a disgusted look on his face. “It doesn’t feel right, doing this kind of work on them,” he mouthed on the private com. “Why isn’t this being handled by MetAl Co’s own security service?”


“You think they didn’t try? I was only told this was tip-top priority overriding all our open cases and requiring all hands on deck this morning, which means they’ve been at work on this for nearly a week and they’re finally admitting they need outside help. Don’t you feel all glowy inside knowing the best and brightest industrial minds in the country turned to us in their hour of need, clamouring for our hard earned skills?”


“There’s only one kind of person more aggravating than an eternal pessimist like me, Laura, and that’s an eternal optimist like you.”


She gave him her most winning smile. “Your grouchy voice carries me through the day better than any cup of coffee, have I ever told you that?


“Repeatedly,” he sighed. “Alright,” he said, switching to the general channel. “What have we got thus far?”


“No damage to hands, feet, or head,” Melissa reported with clipped words that made it sound as if she sought to be as economical with her voice as she was with her currency.


“No sign of violence. There aren’t any prior wounds through which what the MetAl Co people mooted to us could have gotten in,” Fatoumata, the youngest of the interns, added, to the nod of her comrades Charlotte and Edmund.


The inspection went on. Marjana positioned the members of the squad to get pictures from as many useful angles as she could imagine, and then some that she could probably only justify on artistic grounds. She usually worked with rather old cameras and she was the only one positively giddy to get to play with the array of thingamajigs in the suits. She pronounced herself satisfied after only a short while: her smile made her look like a cat that had got away with stealing the cream, eating the mice, and who had now discovered a completely unscratched piece of furniture.


“Say what you will about them, they got us all those nice ultra- and infra-specters. And you’re going to like my chemical shots, Arié dear.”


Arié nodded while looking quite aggrieved at how hard it was to properly swab the corpse and its surroundings when his gloves seemed to have been designed to prevent him from doing that.


After an extra ten minutes spent mostly in studious silence, Laura’s wristband started lightly pulsating and warmed up gradually.


“Pack it up.”


It had been less than half an hour, working in unknown conditions with barely any prep and mostly new equipment. It wasn’t going to establish any kind of record for productivity if someone decided this case was an ideal one for a review, Laura thought wryly.


It seemed almost longer to go through the sterile chamber than it had been working on the scene. The subcutaneous pads were already hovering in mid-air in the next room, and a fellow who probably thought himself very clever had coded them to dive as if birds of prey onto the bare arms of her people.


“Our preliminary analyses confirm that there are traces of still mutating and replicating RNA,” Laura said to the silhouette standing behind the thick windowpanes. “We’ll bring them to our lab for further testing.”


“Can we bring the engines back online?”


Laura took a breath. Well, this was it. She had known this was coming since she had been put on the case, and if she had ever thought of doing otherwise, the memory of her mother being eaten away by the asbestos, and of Old Man Jack slowly wasting in a home as he stared without understanding at his stump, and of countless others, would not have let her. It had been nice having a team.


“No. We don’t know for how long that virus can do damage and if it is able to target organic life or at least its ironic components. And in any case, this site is going to have to be thoroughly quarantined.


“There are no humans working here, Ms Blum-Stanwick, I can assure you...”


“Your company has been advertising that your robot workers are worth just as much, if not more, than any person, and the results of the personhood vote are expected any day now. We’re treating this case as murder so long as the law doesn’t explicitly say otherwise. Bringing any more workers, ironic or organic, inside would be reckless endangerment. Now, what is the name of the victim?”


“Name? They don’t have...”


“Fine, its serial number of whatever you have.”


“Z3-K4 is the name of that model, but we don’t actually have identifiers for them except for their electronic tags.”


“He does look like a Ze-ka, at that,” Sy cut in.


“Anyroads, Mister MetAl Co, we’ll bring to justice whoever designed what we presume is the virus that rusted Ze-ka’s fine iron parts, and we’ll make sure as little as possible is disrupted before you can resume production.”


The pads detached themselves from the skin. As they floated back towards the ceiling, they sent a long trill meaning everything was as normal as could be.


*****


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